|“If it sends a cold shiver down one’s spine,” Edith Wharton said of the horror tale, “it has done its job and done it well.” For centuries, savvy horror writers have passed this visceral test by relying on proven techniques that elicit shuddering, bristling and terror. But horror writers do not claim eminent domain over the realm of fear, an emotion integral to every genre. Some conventions of dark fantasy offer a rich mother lode of fear-inducing techniques valuable to all fiction writers. Here are five such techniques:|
1. Exploit the power of suggestion. Subtle doesn’t always sell. Nonetheless, discerning writers often evoke the fear response through the power of suggestion rather than with graphic descriptions. Granted, modern authors have broken new ground in the art of vivid, cinematic imagery, and this modern, aggressive style has often enriched their genres. But reader interest can be blunted by any stylistic overkill. H.P. Lovecraft made his horrors convincing simply by pretending they were too horrible to describe. Used judiciously, such restraint by the writer can be more chilling than explicit realism.Instead of docudrama-style description of a mad slasher at work, for example, skip the “slice-and-dice” approach by shifting reader attention away from the violent act; suggest the savagery indirectly through the spontaneous reaction of a character who happens upon the aftermath of the attack. Remember that shock is initially an intensely physical experience—“a flash of ice, a flash of fire, a bursting gush of blood,” as Robert Louis Stevenson described it. Use vivid sensory images that let inner intensity suggest outer atrocities.
Another effective technique is to use a jarringly inappropriate response—hysterical laughter, say, at the moment of terror—to suggest fear or grief so powerful it challenges the character’s sanity. Sixteen-year-old Johnny is being dismembered by a group of rabid playmates who are under the spell of an evil mojo fetish. His dying thought is not focused on the terror at what’s happening to him or the diorama of his life passing before his eyes. Instead, he dies in shame, wondering what his mother will say about his dirty underwear.2. Forestall the moment of terrifying revelation. The subtle touch can also improve your plot when you use it to slow down narrative time and thus heighten suspense. “The most chilling moment of any horror film,” notes director Roger Corman, “usually relates to a scene in which some character is seen in a long corridor, running away from or approaching some unspecified object of unparalleled horror. The moment before this revelation of the nature of that ‘thing’ holds the fear.” Stephen King echoes this advice in Danse Macabre, noting that a closed door is a continuous source of fearful suspense only so long as it remains closed. Once it’s opened, and the Unknown Thing—no matter how horrible—confronted, suspense is resolved.
One key to forestalling the critical moment of revelation is cinematic pacing: delaying or freezing narrative time by backpedaling point of view to another character. Unlike the flashback, which can clumsily interrupt narrative time, backpedaling is merely retelling the same scene or sequence of events from another character’s point of view, thus attenuating or repeatedly “freeze-framing” narrative time.John Fowles used this strategy effectively to structure his psychothriller The Collector. The first half is narrated by a deranged kidnapper; the second half covers the exact same sequence of events from his victim’s point of view. Only then is the denouement finally reached. Not only does this twice-told technique extend suspense, it allows the reader to consider frightening new perspectives and possibilities missed the first time.
3. Use ongoing hooks. Fear is “a feeling of anxiety and agitation caused by the presence or nearness of danger, evil or pain.” It is thus inextricably linked to the broader feeling of suspense, “a state of usually anxious uncertainty.” And another way to heighten suspense, that important prerequisite of fear, is through timely placing of hooks.Most aspiring writers dutifully provide opening or closing chapter hooks. But they should also pay attention to subtly telegraphed teasers throughout chapters and scenes—less dramatic ongoing hooks intended to answer that nagging question that plagues most professional writers during composition: Why should my readers want to keep reading? One answer is to supply irresistible mini-hooks between the mega-grabbers. These mini-hooks should unobtrusively promise more to come just around the narrative corner.
One of my all-time favorites is not found in the horror genre but in Owen Wister’s classic Western The Virginian: “They strolled into the saloon of a friend, where, unfortunately, sat some foolish people.” This understated teaser occurs in the middle of a long scene and hardly produces frissons down the spine. Contrast its reduced intensity to the taut opening sentence of Robert Bloch’s “The Closer of the Way”: “To this day I don’t know how they got me to the asylum.” Yet both hooks serve the same narrative function: They contribute to a sense of menace and promise more to come, compelling the reader forward to find out what that “more” is.4. Appeal to universal fears. Clinical psychology is replete with labels for almost any conceivable fear. If, for example, you’re diagnosed as triskaidekaphobic, you’re badly frightened by the number 13. Some people are deathly afraid of certain colors or foods; others have sought help because they irrationally believe their knees will suddenly collapse. While such real but relatively rare phobias may be fascinating to ponder, they don’t usually underpin the most gripping fiction. But successful writers understand that archetypal fears, because of their universality, help ensure more reader identification with the characters.
Exploit traditional fears rooted in the “blood consciousness” of most of us: fear of someone or something lurking under the bed, closed (or partially opened) doors, hallways or tunnels that lead to unknown fates, cramped spaces, basements, attics, heights, crowds, darkness, disease, doomsday, death. Don’t neglect what may be man’s most potent and ancient bête noire: fear of ostracism from society, a “phobic pressure point” that Stephen King touches so well in such bestsellers as The Dead Zone and Firestarter, featuring heroes too weirdly different to fit in.Modern writers may substitute shopping malls and high-rise buildings for moors and gothic castles. But they are still most effective when they appeal to traditional, universal fears.
5. Tease your readers. Dyed-in-the-wool horror fans—whose loyalty accounts for the steady sales—present a challenging paradox for writers: Such readers expect certain conventions, yet they rightly scorn too much predictability. Thus, writers, especially in the horror, mystery and private-eye fields, have learned to “tease” their readers, to disrupt expectations without disappointing them. One venerable technique for accomplishing this balancing act is the strategic combination of the “fake scare” and the “fake release.”The fake scare can be any scene in which a character is startled, surprised or shocked through a mistaken interpretation of a harmless event. Your heroine, stalked at night by a psychotic killer, is frantically rummaging through her purse for her house key; suddenly she cries out in fright at an abrupt skittering noise on the sidewalk behind her. It turns out to be only a discarded candy wrapper propelled by a vagrant breeze.
But such a fake scare is in fact only the writer’s equivalent of the set-shot in volleyball: a nasty “spike” may soon follow. The subsequent emotional relief experienced by character and reader is sometimes also a “fake release” of dramatic tension: The writer chooses this moment or one soon after, when the readers’ psychological guards are down, to let the killer fling the door open from inside and leap at the heroine, his Sheffield boning knife glinting cruelly in a stray shaft of moonlight.Readers expect these little tricks, so writers have to tease them a bit: Sometimes the harmless scare really is harmless, throwing readers off and providing the character (but not the uneasy reader, who loves this stuff) a genuine release of tension. And sometimes the skittering noise is neither harmless nor just a setup for a later zinger—the Horrible Thing really is there when the heroine spins around. Good writers somehow stay one step ahead of their readers, coming up with new and effective twists on the combination of fake scare and fake release.
The pros know it’s technique that delivers the scares required for almost every story.